Do you crave the look of a high-end, hand-painted portrait backdrop for your studio, but don't want to shell out the bucks for such a luxury? Why not grab your favorite roll of seamless paper and fake it ‘til you make it?
A Portable Solution
Before I had my own studio space, I worked mostly on location. My go-to setup for business portraits back then was a 54-inch wide roll of gray seamless paper. I could set it up in a flash without an assistant, grab the shot I needed, and then later enhance that plain backdrop in Photoshop with a texture that would fool the eye of most anyone into thinking I had used a gorgeous, hand-painted canvas backdrop. I did this for years, and it resulted in many happy clients, both in business portraits and more mainstream studio work.
Splurging on the Real Thing
When I opened my photography studio after many years of borrowing space and shooting on-location, I celebrated having my very own spread by splurging on a high-end backdrop, hand-painted by one of the most talented backdrop painters in the business, the one-and-only Sarah Oliphant. Sarah is a legend in the backdrop world. Her backdrops have been featured in magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, and in the works of such world-famous photographers as Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger. Each one is truly a work of art.
The backdrop I commissioned from her is a gorgeous, double-sided, two-tone gray masterpiece, and I am super happy I took the plunge and bought it. It has totally taken the place of that plain gray seamless paper in my studio work. Having it set up permanently in my studio has reduced my workload both physically and in post-production.
However, there are many times when I want to shake things up by adding a little color to my portrait work, especially in senior portraits or commercial work. I love to use a red backdrop, as well as teal or deep blue. If I were super rich, I would ask Sarah to paint me one of each color. If I were flush with the luxury of time and painterly talent, I might try to paint my own. Alas, I have none of these luxuries, but what I do have is seamless paper, and Photoshop skills.
The Seamless Solution
Seamless paper backdrops are super easy to get, economical, and they come in every color under the sun. My go-to seamless brand, Savage Universal, even offers them in multiple widths of 107, 86, 53 or 26 inches. And while they can look great on their own, especially for a high-fashion look, sometimes they need a little added drama when they are being used for fine-art portraiture. Enter the texture overlay. Add one to an otherwise plain seamless backdrop, and you dramatically change the look and feel of your portrait. Throw in dramatic lighting and a timeless subject, and you can achieve an old-masters portrait feel without breaking the bank on a custom backdrop.
Texture overlays are super easy to create yourself. You can use your own photos of anything you see with interesting texture. I like to seek out things such as an interesting stonework, a grungy wall, a city sidewalk, chipping paint, or rusty metal. I’ve also created textures by photographing fabrics such as linen, burlap, or canvas. If you don’t want to create your own, you can buy textures for Photoshop (Etsy is an excellent resource for paid textures), or find free textures to download on sites like Deviantart or Brusheezy.
In the following example, I wanted to add some painterly feel to an already dramatic portrait of one of my high school senior clients. I took a photo of the darker side of my Oliphant backdrop, but I wasn’t happy with the initial effect I got when incorporating it into my portrait.
The texture was a little lost in all the dramatic red. I decided to go back and enhance the texture of the backdrop in Adobe Camera Raw by increasing the clarity, lifting the whites, and deepening the blacks.
After doing initial skin and color edits in the photo that I wanted to place the texture in, I made a selection to isolate the red seamless background from my subject, and I copied and pasted the textured backdrop into the image in a separate layer. Finally, I changed the blending mode of that layer to “overlay”, and adjusted the opacity to my liking. The result is a beautifully textured, realistic looking backdrop for a fraction of the cost of a real, hand-painted canvas or muslin.
This method of adding texture is not just good for adding drama to your images. Sometimes your seamless paper needs a little cosmetic help to look better because of defects. Poor lighting, incorrect storage, and just everyday wear-and-tear can make your seamless look a little shabby. Sometimes you need to add a little something to disguise flaws such as ripples or creases. And sometimes your seamless paper just has a funky texture to it that you don’t want to see in your images. In these cases, adding texture can actually act as a correction instead of an enhancement.
A Quick Fix that Pays Off
Another great use for these texture overlays is for disguising your backdrop when it happens to be a plain wall. This can be especially useful on-location where you don’t have the time or capacity to carry a backdrop with you. In the following portrait, I had my subject stand against a pale gray wall in natural light, and I added texture to it in order to create interest and make it look more professional. For this texture, I took the same original photo of my gray backdrop, and changed the color of it using the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to add sepia tone to it. I then enhanced the texture again using Adobe Camera Raw. This time, I experimented with different blend modes, finally settling on “darken”. The result is a soft, golden backdrop that complements my subject and raises the overall image to a different level.
As you can see, it’s simple to transform your portraits quickly and economically with the use of some experimentation and a little Photoshop magic.